My Secret to Getting Shit Done

When you take the long view time is our most precious resource.  We all get 24 hours each day to spend as we see fit, and it will pass whether it’s used or not.  In my case, either I seize the hours of the day and use them effectively, or I can have a pleasurable day where nothing tangible gets accomplished.  There isn’t really a middle ground for me.

This post is about how I make my best days happen.  JM says the last technique he would give up is meditation, followed closely by offerings.  The last technique I would give up is daily planning.

The Tech

This is simple: I use a paper planner.  I prefer Franklin products, but you can use whatever you like.

My planner of choice

My planner of choice

I am pretty tech savvy, but after years of trying to go digital on PCs, laptops, Palm Pilots, iPhones, and iPads I’ve finally given up and have returned to paper planning products.  I journal on paper as well, and I keep my magical records there.  I can’t say that there’s something universally special about writing things down in a tangible way, but I can say this is the way that works for me.

My Method for Planning the Day

There are lots of books out there that offer ways to plan your time and your day.  My favorites are:

  • Hyrum Smith’s 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management.  This is the guy who created the Franklin Planner, and it’s hard to find a book that better captures how to use this system.  I read this the first time back in the 1980s, so my perception may have been unduly influenced here.
  • Steven Covey’s books (google him, or search on Amazon.)  This takes day planning from a daily thing and moves it to a weekly perspective, and adds in the concept of the different roles you have in life.  I think this is more useful in the overall planning process than in day-to-day work, but he makes good points and lots of folks swear by him.
  • The Getting Things Done system by David Allen.  Useful for some people – especially those whose lives are controlled by others and can be chaotic.  His books helped me manage my files and paperwork, but there’s not the focus on long-term goals and personal transformation here that you see in the books mentioned above.

I’ve finally found a system that works for me.  I get a frightening amount of stuff done when I show the discipline to use this system, and I lose big fractions of days when I don’t.  If you’re seriously working to accomplish more with your time, you should seriously consider the process that I’ve determined works best for me.

Step One: Center

For me this is prayer to God/Divinity.  This helps me put things in perspective:

  • I’m here and have a day to spend as I see fit
  • My goal is to live today the best I can, and hopefully I will be a better person at the end of this week than I was the week prior
  • I’m thankful for the chance to better myself, and for the gifts and opportunities I have received.
  • My focus is shifted beyond me and my wants.  I’m part of something greater, and I have a role to play.  My role is probably different than yours, but pleasure and fun, while rewarding in their own right, aren’t meaningful uses of our time.

Step Two: Meditate

I am bad about this.  What I should be doing is spending a half-hour in a meditative state, but I find that I can completely clear my head in a minute or so and be completely blank, and this is a great place to start daily planning.

Step Three: Review my Values

The most important section in the planner

The most important section in the planner

I have spent hours writing and rewriting my values, and taking time to review them helps really focus me on what’s truly important to me.  These are my core values, and they change over time as I evolve, but I find that reading these out loud helps me focus on what’s truly important rather than the stuff that strikes me as most urgent in my day.

Do what works for you.  I’ve tried this as a list of values, and as a mission statement, but what works best for me is two pages: one lists my values directly, the other lists the best way I see to approach my work in life.  The first item on the second list is Do The Fucking Work!, which might tell you something about how much really meaningful stuff I accomplish when I don’t plan.

Step Four: List Everything I Want to Accomplish Today

If I want it done, it goes down here.  Phone calls and letters to be mailed were often placed here on past days (more on that later.)  Projects that I’m looking to get done sometime this month are in the front of the planner, and I reference those on slow days.  Long-term goals are in their own section, and those goals are broken down into medium- and short-term goals, which can be copied directly to daily pages.

The key here is be reasonable in what you plan.  My promise means a lot, and these lists are a promise to myself.  If I over-schedule, then I am making promises I can’t keep, which I try really hard not to do.  Some days not everything gets done, but practice makes it possible to set reasonable expectations for yourself.

Under-plan to start.  Teach your unconscious that the shit you write in your book gets done on-time and reliably so.  This turns a useful tool for time management into an incredibly powerful tool for life management.

Step Five: Prioritize

If I skip step five then nothing happens.  This step is where the plan becomes real, and it’s incredibly simple and obvious:

  • Stuff that must get done today gets an A label.
  • Stuff that should get done today gets a B.
  • Stuff that would be nice if I got it done gets a C.

Once that is done, I prioritize each item.  The most important A item gets transformed into A1, then the second becomes A2, and I continue that all the way down to C12 or whatever.

Step Six: Work Your List

Once I’m done prioritizing I’ve:

  • Reaffirmed my place in the world
  • Centered myself and reached a point of inner stillness
  • Recited the my most important values
  • Planned my day so that the most important things are listed there
  • Prioritized them so I know what the best use of my time is at any given point in time

So there’s some interesting stuff on the Internet, I’ve got new e-mail to deal with, there are those new books I bought, a game or two are calling my name, there is some long-range planning I need to do for magical and mundane stuff, but with all that pulling me one way or another I know the best use for my time.

So I show personal integrity and push all those distractions aside and work on task A1.  If that hits a roadblock like needing someone else to call me back, then I move on to A2.  If I need to rest my brain a bit then I move down the list and pick something that I can address in my current mindset so I’m still working on the most important stuff I can handle at the moment.

At the end of the day, most days I’ve accomplished all my important tasks.  When I haven’t I know I did my best, and I can transfer the incomplete work to the next day.  Regardless, I am almost invariably shocked at the amount of meaningful stuff I got done.

If I don’t plan my day, or if I start planning but I don’t actually prioritize the daily items, then I may still have a day I’d judge as “good” or “productive,” but it’s not nearly as good as it would be if I’d used this system.

Dealing With the Day’s Issues

Make a commitment?  Write it down.  Have a conversation?  Record it in the note section on the right-hand side of the page.  Receive a bill?  Make an entry in the future for when you want to pay it.  Find something terribly insightful?  Write it down so it doesn’t get missed.

Everything goes in the planner.  You don’t make notes on post-its, or the backs of envelopes (well, maybe calculations), or anywhere other than in your planner.  If you are consistent with this, then you will never let anything fall through the cracks again.

Decide you want to take a class on Greek at the local college next semester, but you can’t sign up for 2 months?  Write it down today, and later today or tomorrow (whenever you close out the day) open your planner notes for the future day and simply write it down in your task list.    See a great election coming up in the future and know you want to make a talisman then, and that talisman is going to require lots of prep-work?  Write it down, and when you close out your day make appropriate entries for every step on the appropriate days and you’ll be ready on-time.  (Technically you might plan this as a goal with appropriate sub-goals, but if it’s simple enough you can just do it in one step.)

Easy-fucking-peasy.

Required Lifestyle Changes

That big-assed planner needs to go wherever you do, so you’ll need to end up carrying it, buying a bigger purse to fit it, or decide to start wearing a messenger bag (man-purse) around with you.  This isn’t a bad thing – carrying your planner, a book/kindle, some sunglasses, glasses-cleaner wipes, cigars, and whatever other stuff you may want on a given day is actually pretty convenient.

I find vacations are wonderful times for reflections and minor life-resets, so I always bring my planner.  Yes, even at the beach.

Regardless, when you’re working you’ll need your planner right next to you in order to use this system properly.  It’s an incredibly useful tool for living your life the way you choose to live it, but it doesn’t work unless you use it consistently.

Other Tidbits

  • I use the alarm function on my smart phone to make sure things happen on time.  This works if I need to get up two hours before sunrise for a working, or if I promise to call someone, or if I just want to remember to take the trash to the street every week.
  • If you’re in school this works incredibly well to make sure you’re on top of coursework and assignments.  Add in alarms to make sure you don’t get caught up in a research project and forget class (it’s happened to me).  You’ll never be unprepared for a test again, as you’re diligent and enter all of them into your planner as soon as you get the syllabus, right?
  • If you are struggling to remember to take this everywhere, then buy a pocket-sized version and move your drivers license and credit cards to it.  You’ll need to remember to bring it with you, or you’re screwed in multiple ways.
  • Be honest with your values and goals – don’t use code-words for fear of others digging through your planner, but you might want to use appropriate abbreviations in the daily pages as others might see these.  “SS Chapter” is pretty bland, as is “prayer and daily meditation,” or whatever.  If you’ve got friends who lack the self-control to keep from opening your book and paging through it, then learn how to slap them hard, or use enchantment to keep private things private.
  • Plan long-term goals, and make an additional weekly- and monthly- planning session to make sure these get included (Covey calls these your “big rocks.”)  The “correct” way to do this is to work through each value and set goals in accord with that value, but you might have a long-term goal of “be able to read the Vulgate Bible in Latin” that isn’t a strong fit in a value.  You might find planning your goals independently works best.
  • The sections in the front of the planner are great for projects – check them daily/weekly/monthly and tackle them as appropriate.  Remember: these are promises to yourself, so don’t over-promise and under-deliver.  If you make a commitment to yourself (like “clean the garage in September,”) then make sure you honor it.  You’re a magician.  Your words mean something.

This is really the best mundane tech I’ve ever used.  It’s like esoteric techniques though: if you don’t actually do the fucking work then you won’t see the personal transformations that it can create.

You’ve gotta do the work.  Consistently.

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